What happens in the sky might be solved in the cloud.


At this point, nearly two weeks after the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight 370, the only certainty is the source of the next conspiracy theory.  We’ve heard every theory from hijacking to pilot suicide to computer hacking terrorism.  There’s no plane.  There’s no physical evidence.  There’s no group claiming responsibility.  And the worst part – there’s no concrete data to tell us where that plane was, where it was heading, or what might have gone wrong.  Some of the best thinking, not unsurprisingly, is being forwarded on WIRED.com.

Why is that?

It turns out that, as astounding an engineering feat it may be to get 30 tons of aluminum aloft and cruising at 500 mph, there really is not that much new “technology” in aviation.  Sure, there are on-board computers, there are advanced avionics systems, there’s radar and so on.  But in terms of how planes are tracked, the systems are still pretty crude.

In the United States, for instance, there can be upwards of 50,000 aircraft flying through the skies on any given day.  These are tracked through the air route traffic control centers (ARTCC) using basic radio frequencies.  A plane flying from New York to Los Angeles, for instance, is simply “handed off” from one ARTCC to the next, until it’s close enough to talk to the air traffic control tower (ATCT) at Los Angeles.  Along the way, they’re instructed on basic parameters:  what altitude to fly at, what heading to take and so on.  And flights heading across oceans don’t even have real-time contact:  they’re given a heading, an altitude, and they simply “check in” via high frequency radio with control centers that can be sometimes thousands of miles away.

When a plane crashes (a rare occurrence, in terms of probability,) or disappears (even less likely,) the investigation usually focuses on finding the “black box.”  The black box houses a flight data recorder and a cockpit voice recorder.  These record all kinds of information about the flight, including the mechanical data, and the conversations between the cockpit and the towers.

Why not modernize the flight data recording and cockpit voice recordings into a more technologically advanced system?  For instance, why doesn’t every commercial flight have a real-time data stream to the cloud?  From the time a plane is at the gate, through takeoff and climb, flight routing, approach and landing, EVERYTHING can be uploaded in real-time to the cloud.

This would be big data indeed.  On the receiving end, interested parties (from the airplane manufacturers to airline system executives to airports,) can monitor that data for all kinds of information BEFORE anything happens.  Think of the advances that might be realized:

  • A real-time data stream can tell the pilots and the airline about on-the-ground conditions, such as tire pressures, tire wear (heck even your basic automobile can do that,) hydraulics systems, power systems, computer systems and more.
  • In-flight data streams can inform on other conditions like rate of burn on fuel, weather-related data (triangulated with the aircraft’s current heading and velocity,) best altitudes for certain legs, engine efficiency and diagnostics and even act as the precursor to ATC at arriving airports for more streamlined trafficking.  Every interested party could tap into segments of the data set for relevant and actionable information.
  • Imagine – if the real-time data recording detects any glitch whatsoever, the awaiting airport can have the appropriate crews ready to remedy the problem and get the plane back in the air sooner than later.  That’s good for the airline, and for impatient passengers.
  • With big data providing in-air information, manufacturers like Boeing and Airbus can have access to a wealth of information about their aircraft, providing a post-sale, ongoing flight test to make longer-term observations and in turn, inform their engineering teams with an up-to-the-moment feedback loop.
  • With big data, we could probably streamline airport efficiency as well. (Yay!)

But mostly, the benefits of big data center around safety.  Big data is, at worst, informative.  And at best, it’s predictive.  If we could predict when issues might arise (even at the probability level,) we could keep pilots, crews and passengers safe, and probably avert any more, um, disappearing aircraft.

But why isn’t this done on a global scale?  There are drawbacks to such a proposal, to be sure.

  • Any system that can be built is eventually at the risk of being hacked.  Duly noted.  So we build in the world’s most sophisticated security (like every government/defense/space program has,) and find ways to packet, encrypt and protect.
  • There’s the sheer heft.  We’re talking storage in the yottabytes and a data center the size of Topeka.
  • This most likely hasn’t been done because it would be prohibitively expensive.  To the tune of tens or even hundreds of billions of dollars to craft, build, deploy and maintain a data system of this magnitude.  And then there’s the storage/archiving issue.

But think about it:  that cost could be amortized by every airline, manufacturer and aviation association in the world, and if it carries with it the promise of improved safety, greater efficiency, and predictive analytics, who wouldn’t be in favor of that?

We have entered the age of the Internet of Things.  Our homes are warmed by “smart” thermostats that are remotely controllable.  We have “smart” TVs and “smart” dishwashers and “smart” refrigerators to enhance our entertainment choices and the temperature of our water. So why not a smarter aviation infrastructure?

But who could build such a vast and predictive data center?  I don’t know for sure, but it might rhyme with Froogle.

Five Rules of Engagement

For years, marketers, editors and bloggers have been volleying the marketing term “engagement” around like a taped up shuttlecock.  The term has also been denigrated by continuous contextual evolution.  “Engagement” means one thing when referring to customer loyalty programs, another in the context of your web analytics package, and something further afield in the complex mesh of social media.

So, to give engagement a better—or at least more consistent—name, I’ve attempted to identify some key principles of what customer engagement means in the context of marketing, and in the process, hope to help marketers use these principles to focus their efforts on engaging more customers.  This will be expanded into an intelligence paper with more detail, which I will post here later.

Just to be clear, three qualifiers and definitions:  first, I’m not talking about making sales, or generating leads, or providing entertainment.  We’re talking about moving a consumer (of just about anything:  soda, music, jet engines, etc.) beyond the initial sale, into an area of prolonged interaction and even ongoing communication.

Second, engagement does NOT necessarily have to follow a sale.  But it does follow the initial conversion from “I’m not interested” or “I’m not aware” to “I’m interested and want to hear/learn/see/do more with this brand.” For instance, I don’t buy anything from Mashable, but I’m deeply engaged with their content, and couldn’t imagine starting a day without visiting that site and consuming that information.  The same is true for almost a billion people and Facebook: nothing has been purchased, but the engagement level with that brand is incredibly high.

Finally, customer engagement tends to be transactional.  That is to say that it seems reserved for those brands that involve multiple interactions.  You might buy a coffee brand or read a certain blog every day, so the opportunity for repeated experiences—as you’ll see, one principle for engagement—exists.  On the contrary, you may only buy a funeral plot once in your adult life, if it all – there’s not much of an opportunity for that marketer to drive engagement with that customer.  (Not to say it doesn’t happen  – the singular experience may leave a lasting impression.)

The Five Principles of Engagement – in relative chronological order.

Principle 1:  It Starts with Triangulation. Although many marketers believe that they can engage customers in a linear, point a to point b fashion, this is actually quite difficult to sustain.  At some point, the customer needs more attention, and thus triangulation becomes a pivotal element of customer engagement.  When you and your customer can triangulate on outside interests—features like design or performance, affiliations like music, or sports, or a cause like the environment, or travel rewards like Broadway musicals—then the opportunities to engage multiply exponentially. Now you can offer your customer more of what they like/want/need, (while simultaneously creating a deeper bond, since you and the customer now have a common interest or two or six,) and tie the resulting benefits back to your brand.

Principle 2: It’s Fueled by Passion. Passion is the fuel for true customer engagement.  When you triangulate on something together, it’s based on both of your passions for it.  (That’s why you choose your triangulation points carefully. If you don’t have passion for that “other thing,” your customers will see right through your shoddy aims.) If your brand can demonstrate real passion for the industry, for the craft, for the process, or it continues to demonstrate passion in the form of your new products and services, that passion tends to be matched by your engaged customer. It’s in the nature of relationships to want to reciprocate what the other party is doing.  This in turn, leads to a process of ongoing exchange between the two parties that continues to amp up the interchange.

Principle 3:  It’s an Ongoing Relationship.  Many sales professionals (and I say this with the utmost respect for what they do) have an understandably myopic view of what marketing is about…they think lead>conversion>end.  Today, marketers know that the sale or conversion is just the beginning of a long and hopefully fruitful relationship where the initial conversion is an indication of some assent to continue communicating.  Brands that form relationships with their customers tend to provide a more enjoyable, and more sustainable experience for the customer, where each has their own voice, and after some trust is built up, can even begin to ask things of each other.

Principle 4.  It’s Based on the Experience.  Even if a marketer can provide every one of the above principles, engagement typically only occurs when the marketer can provide a certain (unique) experience to the customer.  It could be a benign feature, or something very personal, (but as we know from our brand training, the more emotional the benefit, and the higher up the ladder of self-actualization, the better.)

Great brands with deeply engaged customers provide a single certain, can’t-get-it-anywhere-else kind of feeling for those customers.  In many cases, those brands provide repeated experiences (even simple ones) that add up to something similarly special.  That leads to an unmistakable takeaway and a glowing perception of the interaction between the consumer and the producer.  Apple does that.  Wired magazine does that. The Ritz-Carlton does that.  And just to prove it doesn’t have to be some hoity-toity-Fortune-40 brand, the guy on the corner who sells you your bagels and coffee can do that.  And so can your private voice teacher.  And, likely, so did your best sports coach.

Principle 5.  It’s Gotta Be Consistent. Okay, so you’ve triangulated on something cool to create some commonality.  You’ve demonstrated passion with turning out great products that set or buck the industry trends.  You’ve forged a relationship with your customer that’s based on a unique and singular experience.  Now the challenge is sustaining this good will.  The easiest way to do that is to exploit the principle of consistency.  Be consistent with how often you’re communicating with customers.  Be consistent with how often you’re upgrading your products or services. Be consistent with your brand voice.  Because of all the things, this is most important.  Your customers fell for you because of something you did, or the way you did it, or the way you packaged it.  They remembered that experience and the feelings it created.  They came back for more, and continue to patronize—maybe even evangelize for—you and your brand.  Make a left turn on them, and you’ll likely lose all that good will.